Meg Campbell ready to do her part on school board

Meg Campbell being sworn on to the school committee at City Hall.

She’s been a Boston Public School teacher, a poet and the head of the Codman Academy Public Charter School in Dorchester. This month, Meg Campbell picked up another title: Boston School Committee member.

Her appointment to the 7-member board may make her one of the few – if not the only – charter school representatives on a district board in the country. She unsuccessfully applied for one of the open slots last year as well.

“I just wanted to be of service,” said Campbell, a Jones Hill resident. “My kids are grown and I felt I had something to offer and some free time. I really wanted to do it. And I went back a second time. I think that Boston can and should have the best public schools in the country.”

Campbell, 59, started the Codman Academy Public Charter School twelve years ago inside a community health center. Dorchester High School, located nearby, was among the least sought-after high schools by parents, before turning into Tech Boston Academy, which hosted President Barack Obama last year.

“I think there are stronger offerings,” Campbell said of the current system, which includes over 120 schools. “As an overall system, it’s a large complex organization, and as a system it’s responded to the competition of other schools.”

The increased competition has come from parochial schools and charter schools, including hers, which selects students through a lottery and has 140 students enrolled. The average class size is 17, and the school’s six graduated classes have all been accepted to four-year colleges and universities.

Campbell’s appointment comes as the school department is warring with the Boston Teachers Union over the teachers’ contract. Negotiations have dragged on between the parties for nearly two years. Johnson is undertaking the third attempt in the last ten years to review the BPS student assignment system, an oft-criticized process which assigns students to zones in the city, buses them across neighborhoods at a cost of $80 million, and is frequently cited as a factor causing families to leave the city.

“My first priority is to learn and to listen. My second priority is to focus on a strategic plan for the future of the schools, including student assignment,” Campbell said. “I think it’s time to revisit that.”

Nationally, 85 percent of charter school students come from the immediate community, she said. “I would like to look at where the kids are coming from and where they’re going,” Campbell said, acknowledging that some students will still need to be bused. As an example, she pointed to the Edward Everett Elementary School in her Jones Hill neighborhood, and wondered whether it can have more students who can walk to school but still be a racially diverse school.

“It’s not just about racial diversity, it’s about economic diversity,” she added.

Campbell said she also wants to focus on principals.

“You can have the most fantastic teacher in the world, but if he or she is not in a school with a strong principal, they tend to leave the profession,” she said.

Campbell has held down a number of jobs. She grew up in southern California and came to the area to study at Harvard. She went into community organizing for ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), and worked in Vermont and New Hampshire. Eventually, she ended up working on Beacon Hill as a researcher for state Sen. Edward Burke, who chaired the health care committee.

In 1999, she wrote a book of poetry, “Solo Crossing.” Another book is due out this year, called “More Love.”

She’s lived in Jones Hill for thirty years, she said. “Outside of Dorchester, you say Dorchester and they kind of look at you glassy-eyed,” Campbell said. “I like the feistiness of Dorchester. We have such a rich history of social activism. People underestimate Dorchester. We’re the mouse that roared.”

Asked about whether the city should reverse course and move away a mayorally-appointed school committee and back toward an elected school committee, Campbell said the issue was “not on my radar.”

The issue gained traction in 2010, largely due to some frustrated parents and school activists smarting over the school committee’s vote to close and merge schools. Boston has had an appointed school committee since 1992, after a referendum. Some elected officials have suggested a hybrid model of an elected and appointed school committee.

“Whatever the populace decides, I will obviously abide by,” Campbell said. “But for me it’s a bit of a distraction in that this is what we have.”

Campbell added that she’s not a politician and cautioned against the committee becoming a “political stepping stone.” She pointed to Louise Day Hicks, a controversial politician who opposed busing and was elected to the school committee, the City Council and Congress. “You want them back?” she said of Hicks and others who supported her.

At Codman Academy, Campbell has an appointed school committee.

“I think it works,” she said. “It’s kind of like – do you want an elected hospital committee, do you want an elected police committee? I think it gets kind of messy.”